Notes, background, and questions by Jeremy Lewis
Last revised 18 Mar 2001; click your Refresh or Reload button to see latest.
The setting is the 1973 Chilean coup d'etat of the army against the newly elected socialist party government of Salvador Allende Gossens. Multinational corporations such as Anaconda copper mining and ITT communications, fear the nationalization of their assets by the new government. Some are large contributors to the Nixon campaign.
President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger decide (As Kissinger put it) not to let a country go socialist owing the irresponsibility of its own citizens.
When US economic blocking (and a truckers strike) fails to dislodge the party, US intelligence is ordered in to overthrow the government. The Chilean army has remained out of politics for 150 years, but changes its mind when General Schneider is assassinated by a rocket attack on his car, and General Pinochet takes power. The presidential palace in Santiago, the capital, is bombed, Allende is shot, and some 50,000 young men (often students) are imprisoned in the soccer stadium and interrogated, tortured or even murdered.
US special forces are seen in Santiago, and US naval warships offshore are assisting with communications. In Valparaiso, US naval officers are at work.
In the US there is a counter-culture of students and hippies by this time protesting angrily against the Vietnam war and the business culture that supplied it. In Chile, a few US citizens, other than covert soldiers, are at risk: hippies and students who are helping the poorer neighborhoods, a gentle people unable to withstand military force.
The non-fiction Book and Film.
Enter the father, Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) looking for his lost son Charles. A businessman with military contacts and a loyal republican contributor, he is not entirely comfortable with his son and daughter in law (Sissy Spacek) with their alternative lifestyle. He must gradually come to the understanding that his own government may have declared his son a subversive, and assisted in his torture and murder. His daughter in law must lead him to this realization without herself suffering the same fate. They need to find others who have either suffered or inflicted suffering -- the only ones who could be eye witnesses.
The film stays close to the book, but focusses on the relationships among friends and family before drawing the viewer into the action. The book notes that a document in the US embassy intelligence files wrongly labelled Charles a subversive, perhaps sealing his fate.
In the mid 1990s, the aging former dictator flew to Europe for medical attention and was indicted in several European countries for allegedly murdering their citizens. The British arrested him for extradition and the case was heard by the highest court: should he be extradicted to stand trial in Spain or France, or should he be released since the British had little case against him? The court found against Pinochet -- but the case was reheard after one of the judges was found to have a wife active in Amnesty International. Pinochet was released.
Author and Director.
The film is directed by Costa Gavras, born in Greece but educated in Paris. His first film, "The Sleeping Car Murders" (1965) won awards; this third, "Z" won major awards in Cannes, New York and around the world. "Z" was a thinly disguised outcry against the repressive Greek Colonels revolt against democracy in 1968. His next (slower but harder-hitting) films made in France dealing with similar themes of repression are "Confession" and "State of Siege" (apparently about the Argentinian Tupamaro struggle). In the latter, a subtheme is US complicity in training Latin counterintelligence officers in torture.
Missing is a more commercial, briefer, more American film, more accessible to a mass audience. It is focussed on the father, son and daughter in law rather than on the broader societal issues. Already facing deterioration and distribution issues on celluloid, it has only been found lately on 16mm and in a magenta-toned print with poor sound quality. It can however be found on videotape in reasonably good quality.
For a fine black & white documentary of smuggled television coverage of the coup -- including a scene in which the cameraman films his own death -- see the Battle of Chile. In several parts, at some length, this documentary was a staple of college film nights in the 1970s.
If a brutal dictator arranges an amnesty for his crimes in his own country, can he be tried in another?
Should the US deal with brutal regimes in order to further its trade interests -- or should it attempt to improve their behavior on human rights at the expense of trade?
Increasingly, crimes against humanity are being tried under the UN convention against genocide in the Hague court; witness the trials of war criminals in Serbia. But could this be used one day against American bomber pilots?
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